ARTICLE

Race against time: Drew Gibson on his favourite motorsports shot

Two Ford GT cars racing around the Spa-Francorchamps circuit. Taken by Drew Gibson.
Motorsports photographer Drew Gibson had just 20 minutes to shoot Ford's GT cars at Belgium's Circuit de Spa-Francorchamps – without the engines running. "Ford gave me access to two GT cars, so I used a Canon EOS 5D Mark III (now succeeded by the Canon EOS 5D Mark IV) clamped to the car with a four-stop neutral-density (ND) filter to capture this motion-blur image," he says. Taken with a Canon EF 17-40mm f/4L USM lens at 17mm, 15 sec, f/10 and ISO100. © Drew Gibson

Motorsports photographer Drew Gibson has had a long career shooting high-octane action. A freelance photographer for over a decade, London-based Drew is best known for his automotive and endurance racing images. He's worked for car manufacturers such as Bentley and Aston Martin, as well as Top Gear, Goodwood Revival and several racing teams.

When he was commissioned by Ford Motor Company to shoot its GT cars speeding around the world-famous Spa-Francorchamps circuit in Stavelot, Belgium, there were a few catches – he had just 20 minutes to get the shot, and none of the engines would be running.

Here, he shares the story behind his favourite shot, giving a behind-the-scenes glimpse of what it's like to work for a major racing car manufacturer.

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An iconic section of track

Drew took this image in April 2016 for the Ford GT team. His brief was to provide creative images to meet the team's demands for social media, sponsors and marketing.

With the entire Spa-Francorchamps circuit to play with, Drew wanted to shoot in a recognisable and engaging location. "The photo was taken at a part of the circuit known as Eau Rouge," he says. "It's one of the most iconic sections of track in the world, which made it an obvious choice for the photo's location."

Spa-Francorchamps is well known for its extremely changeable weather, so Drew was relieved to see clear skies. "Shooting in April was great, as the sun doesn't get that high in the sky and it sets fairly early in the day," he continues. "We shot late in the afternoon, at around 5pm, but the sun was still low enough to give contrasting shadows and strong colours.

"I was lucky that the sun was pretty much in the perfect position, just to the right of the car – it wasn't casting shadows of the camera or shining straight down the lens. I'd love to say this was planned but it was more luck dictated by the time slot."

A Bentley racing car during a pit stop at the Spa-Francorchamps circuit. Taken by Drew Gibson.
Drew is a regular at the Spa-Francorchamps circuit – he took this shot at a 24-hour endurance racing event in 2019. "I was waiting for a pit stop when an almighty downpour struck. I knew I would only have a split second to take the picture before water covered my lens and made shooting impossible." Taken on a Canon EOS-1D X Mark II (now succeeded by the Canon EOS-1D X Mark III) with a Canon EF 50mm f/1.2L USM lens at 1/500 sec, f/1.4 and ISO800. © Drew Gibson

A race against time

Drew's main challenge was to get the photo within the time allocated. Trying to find a suitable time slot meant working around the cars as they were being prepared for practice and qualifying sessions, as well as the race itself.

"Race weekends are so busy and additional activities such as photography eat into the team's schedule," says Drew. "The race organisers gave us just half an hour to get the cars on the track, shoot them, and get them back to the pits. I had a plan, and I was as prepared as I could be."

Taking into account moving the vehicles, this gave Drew just 20 minutes of shooting time – with no margin for error. Selecting the right equipment for the job – kit he knew he could rely on – Drew chose a Canon EOS 5D Mark III with an ultra wide-angle Canon EF 17-40mm f/4L USM zoom lens.

"I normally take my racing shots on the Canon EOS-1D X Mark II (now succeeded by the Canon EOS-1D X Mark III) but this is a bit heavy to mount onto cars, so I used the Canon EOS 5D Mark III which is much lighter and creates a beautiful image," says Drew. "I prefer to shoot with prime lenses, but a 14mm is too wide for this sort of picture and a 24mm isn't wide enough. The Canon EF 17-40mm f/4L USM lens gives me more flexibility and also means I only need one filter size to span the focal length range."

We removed the right-hand door on the lead car and one hardy mechanic ducked down and pushed the car on his own.

An unusual challenge

When it came to setting up his camera on the GT car itself, Drew used a suction mount rather than a boom arm on the roof of the car. Many photographers use a boom arm, but it's not Drew's preferred way of working because of the amount of editing required to remove it in post-production.

He had originally planned to mount the Canon EOS 5D Mark III onto the rear wing of the racing car, but had to change his plans at the last minute. "It wouldn't suction onto the rear wing as I'd hoped," he says. "I had to think on my feet and mount the camera further forward, which is why the rear wing is not in the frame. This isn't how I'd planned it, but I think it really helped with the composition. The wide-angle lens distorts the sleek body of the GT rather than the big square wing."

Drew's next issue was getting the cars to move, as – incredibly, given the photographic result – they weren't allowed to start the engines ahead of the race. "My plan was to roll the cars down the straight at the start line, and then fire the camera as they headed up the other side and through Eau Rouge," he says. "However, the area of track where the composition was at its best turned out to be pretty much flat and the cars wouldn't roll on their own."

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Drew recruited the mechanics team to lend some muscle and push the cars along the track. "The car with the camera mount was easy, as a few mechanics could stand to the right of the camera out of frame. However, the lead car was a problem as I couldn't have anyone pushing from behind as they would be seen in shot.

"To get around the problem, we removed the right-hand door on the lead car and one hardy mechanic ducked down and pushed the car on his own! We got just enough movement so the cars could shift a few metres and I could fire the frame."

A long exposure was required to blur the slowly passing circuit while keeping the cars sharp and clear, but as it was a bright, sunny day, Drew had to use filtration. "I used a four-stop neutral-density (ND) filter to allow me to achieve a very long shutter speed of 15 seconds," he says. "While the shutter was open, we pushed the cars and the blur created a sense of speed. I used a cable release to fire the camera, so I didn't have to touch it and risk camera shake."

Autorius Jason Parnell-Brookes


Drew Gibson's kitbag

The key kit pros use to take their photographs

The Canon EOS 5D Mark IV.

Cameras

Canon EOS-1D X Mark III

The successor to the Canon EOS-1D X Mark II that Drew uses. Fast, precise and powerful without compromising on quality, it's the ultimate creative toolkit, with superb low-light performance, deep learning AF and 5.5K RAW video.

Lenses

Lenses

Canon Extender EF 2x III

Ideal for press, sports and nature photography, the extender increases the focal length of Canon L-series telephoto or telephoto zoom lens' by a factor of 2x, with higher AF accuracy and improved communication between camera and lens.

Canon Extender EF 1.4x III

Ideal for press, sports and nature photography, this compact extender increases the focal length of Canon L-series telephoto or telephoto zoom lens' by a factor of 1.4x, with higher AF accuracy and improved communication between camera and lens.

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